The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Dreamgirls

Thursday, April 28, 2011

High Society

July 17, 1956   MGM   106 minutes
By definition, High Society is a Hlwd musical, not a Bway transplant, but as I stated before, there are a few exceptions I feel compelled to make on this journey—and this is one of them. The reasons are two-fold. First off this is the musicalization of a well-known—and literate— play, a practice more common on Bway than Hlwd, but more importantly it has an original score by Bway vet Cole Porter. Of course Porter was no stranger to Hlwd, but since his fabled Bway comeback with Kiss Me Kate in 1948 he had eschewed the silver screen for a late-career Bway renaissance, cementing his status with R&H and Irving Berlin on the Mt. Rushmore of American songwriters. His last Hlwd assignment, just prior to Kate, was the near-miss Kelly/Garland musical, The Pirate—in which, perhaps, his score was the greatest disappointment. That was at the tail end of a long mid-career slump. By mid-century he was a National Treasure, and tho over 60 by then and in declining health, he was once again in great demand—and 1956 was a banner Porter year. With his final two Bway hits destined for Hlwd treatment, MGM offered him another prize: the classy Philadelphia Story for that Porter musical touch. Around the same time, a new record label, Verve, released the seminal Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, two full discs of classic Porter tunes, some nearly forgotten, set to sexy, swinging charts—at once the introduction of a new concept: “The Great American Songbook”; as well as the reinvention of Porter’s tunes for vocalists and generations ahead. Elsewhere in Hlwd, Paramount saw fit to remake the 30s Porter hit, Anything Goes, with a page-one rewrite and just a handful of the original tunes. You’d think by now they would accord Cole the respect given Irving Berlin with his catalog Hlwd musicals. But even here, even this late, they filled out Porter’s score with work by others (in this case, Cahn & Van Heusen). But High Society, was given full current Bway-cred respect, and Porter wrote an entire new score—tho much of it was not used. Nor am I saying it’s among his better achievements. However it would not be a stretch to imagine the show could as easily have been molded for Bway in 1956. (Another Feuer & Martin production, with maybe Richard Kiley as Dexter and Jack Cassidy as Mike. And how about Shirley Jones as Tracy?)

Curiously, it was Fox producer Sol C. Seigel who came over to MGM for this production. Besides owning the rights to Philadelphia Story, MGM was trying to develop a story about the recent phenomena, the Newport Jazz Festival, and thought to combine the two projects into one. It was not the worst of ideas, but  a rather superficial one. The Jazz Festival was barely established at the time, only in its second year—and would develop in the years ahead into an interesting clash of classes, cultures, and generations; not to mention a reputation for world-class music. In High Society it’s represented by Louis Armstrong playing a garden party. But never mind. It’s amazing they held so tightly to the Philadelphia story while Porter’s score is comprised of lyrics so non-specific they could fit in any show. Maybe that’s the problem. Also, there are no ensemble or production numbers in the film. It’s all generic solos and duets, with the heroine barely getting half a verse of a single song.

That heroine is Tracy Lord—a character that single-handedly saved Katherine Hepburn’s career both on stage in the movies. It’s a part requiring an actress of a certain poise and luminosity. Who better than the one already chosen for marriage by a prince? Certainly Grace Kelly gave no one pause, but she was in fact second choice after Elizabeth Taylor passed. Kelly was much hotter at the moment anyway coming off a string of hit movies, (she was the #2 box office star in ’55). She won an Oscar, and a Prince, and royal wedding hysteria was all over the press. Not only that, this was to be her Hlwd swan song. But there are other starring roles to fill; shoes previously filled by Cary Grant & Jimmy Stewart—who even won an Oscar for it. This was easy bait for Sinatra—everybody’s first stop in musical casting. Someone thought to pair him with Bing Crosby—his predecessor as America’s premier singer. Crosby had already paired with Kelly in The Country Girl, earning Oscar nominations for both, and a statue for her. It was surefire marquee bait. (Crosby was also in the new Anything Goes makeover.) For a fourth they brought back Celeste Holm whose early stellar film career had stalled after All About Eve—and left her billing below the title. It’s nice to see her, but in truth she’s all wrong for a working-class gal photographer—she’s more like (Tracy’s mother) Margalo Gilmore’s younger sister. Sinatra can play scrappy—he should’ve been the shutterbug, with Holm as the society writer for Spy magazine. As the lecherous Uncle Willie, Louis Calhern made his final screen appearance, and shows a mischievous wit—unlike Sidney Blackmer (playing his brother and Tracy’s father), who hasn’t a comic bone in his body. Sadly, Calhern died of a heart attack while making Teahouse of the August Moon in Japan, two months before High Society was released. John Lund, who had some leading roles in the ‘40s came to furrow his handsome brow in the thankless role of Tracy’s stuffy fiancée. Representing the Jazz Festival angle, Louis Armstrong & his band open the movie riding in the back (unfortunately) of a Greyhound bus, setting up the narrative in a silly calypso:

      He’s got the blues cause his wife alas,
      Thought writing songs beneath his class
      . . .
      She started lately a new affair
      And now the silly chick is gonna marry a
         square

It’s pretty cheesy exposition, and sets up an expectation of more Armstrong than the film ever delivers.

Kelly evokes the qualities of Hepburn without making us miss her. But Crosby and Sinatra are entirely their own creatures separate from Grant & Stewart.  Each has his own song list, Sinatra getting the martini ballads, “You’re Sensational” and “Mind If I Make Love to You,” while Crosby has the soda-pop love songs, “True Love,” “Little One” and “I Love You, Samantha.” Frank duets with Celeste on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which is not nearly as amusing as it wants to be, but entertaining enough just the same due to the performers. Crosby goes all wiggy on us in “Now You Has Jazz,” sung with Armstrong & his band. We have to remind ourselves, that Crosby was once young; his style new and his music considered hot (not that we were there). Here he’s just as much the senior statesman as Porter, and the two are, if not embarrassing, at least painfully clear of the vanguard. It’s Louis and his horn that saves the number—somehow Armstrong never dated. But only once does the movie find what it aspires to: musical bliss. And that’s in the single pairing of Sinatra & Crosby—the voices of two generations in harmony. Porter wrote a rejected ditty called “So What,” that was little more than needlepoint sampler clichés (“A stitch in time saves nine”…”Rome wasn’t built in a day” etc.) ending in a shrug. Instead, director Charles Walters dug out a chestnut he performed himself with Betty Grable in Porter’s 1939 Bway hit, DuBarry Was a Lady, “Well, Did You Evah?” and as Tim Gunn would say, made it work. I’d forgotten how drunk Sinatra is supposed to be in the scene (bizarrely, he seems to sober up a bit thru the song, even as he continues downing them). Once Frank & Bing get into it, the vocal harmony is pure heaven, and you wish it would go on and on—tho it does have its own built-in encore. And if we didn’t quite notice, we’re soon reminded of the stature of the performers when Crosby amends “Bah-bah rum,” with his signature ba-ba-ba-bum, to which Sinatra remarks he doesn’t take to “that kind of crooning.” Crosby’s response: “You must be one of the newer kids.”

Not anymore. Sinatra was 40 now. Crosby 53. And Elvis, 21, was stepping out as the new man in town. But even Elvis recorded “True Love,” which despite, or probably because of its simple lyric and sentiment was a cash cow for Porter—his final hit tune. The song earned Cole his fourth and final Oscar nomination (astonishingly he alone of the great Bway songwriters never won an Oscar). Crosby (and Grace Kelly—who joins in a final few lines) earned gold records for the single, which rose to #5 on Billboard’s chart. It’s been recorded by Jane Powell, The Everly Bros., Patsy Cline, Ricky Nelson, Richard Chamberlain, Connie Francis, Anne Murray, Elton John in duet with Kiki Dee and George Harrison! Aesthetes snub their noses at Porter’s (and Berlin & Rodgers’) later work, and there’s validity in comparison to their younger, groundbreaking and breathtaking songwriting. But what may be lacking in freshness in the later work, is rewarded in the unmistakable musicality that defines them above most others. Thus, if “True Love” seems pedestrian to the cultured musical ear, it is yet unmistakably Porter, which is no small reward in itself.

In her ratty old sweater and glasses we could almost buy Grace Kelly as disheveled wife to alcoholic actor Crosby in Country Girl. But here they generate little chemistry together, let alone a romantic past. Crosby seems cast more for his stunt pairing with Sinatra. MGM had also considered Howard Keel for the role—the match with Sinatra wouldn’t have had much resonance, but it might have helped with Kelly. As a second tier musical director at MGM, Charles Walters had a number of studio hits: Good News, Easter Parade, Summer Stock, Lili as well as some Esther Williams vehicles. He also staged his films’ dances—tho there’s little dancing to be had here. But even with all the legendary musical talent (Armstrong, Crosby, Sinatra) the movie doesn’t quite ignite. That didn’t stop it from becoming the 4th highest grossing film of the year, with $6,500,000 in the bank. Sinatra was having quite a year, too. His Guys & Dolls was the year’s top hit, and his third film in the top 15, The Man With the Golden Arm, not a musical, earned him another Oscar nomination—this time in the leading actor category. His records weren’t doing badly either. The High Society soundtrack charted for 28 weeks, peaking at #5. But that was small potatoes next to his Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. which hit #2, and charted for nearly a year.  But  Crosby’s  “True Love”  single  went Gold, and was his biggest hit since the ‘40s. The movie opened in Hlwd on July 17th but didn’t make it to New York until August 9th because of unexpected holdover business for The Eddy Duchin Story at Radio City. The Music Hall usually played films for 4 or 5 weeks, but Duchin was held over for seven. Its successor would hold for just a long.

I haven’t much of a history with the film, not getting to it until 1990. George Cukor’s film of Philip Barry’s play, Philadelphia Story had a far greater impact on me, with its sparkling boulevard dialogue and classic ‘30s three-act structure—not to mention its iconic Hlwd cast. In truth, even with Porter songs, High Society doesn’t add much to the original. But the heavy star wattage and a hit song was enuf to ride the wave of Bway-sized musicals that were suddenly dominating the film biz. But few could argue the film has not held up much of a reputation over the decades since. It must have some fans, or would it have made it otherwise onto Bway some 42 years later? Inspired in part by such Gershwin reconstructions like My One & Only and Crazy for You, and encouraged by their success, you can see the commercial potential for a Porter catalog show. Fidelity was still accorded The Philadelphia Story so the Porter trunk wasn’t shamefully mined for hits at the expense of narrative logic (tho picking two songs from Can-Can seems unnecessary). Arthur Kopit wrote a polished and clever new book, scuttling all traces of the Newport Jazz festival—and once again shifting the location, this time to Oyster Bay, Long Island. The rich are rich wherever they are. The songlist was highly appealing, and the cast, if not famous was of vintage 90s Bway talent. The show had just about everything except for one thing: it seemed blind to being a musical. The songs were played and performed as tho they were something to be endured between dialogue scenes—instead of the other way around. Compare it to the stage reboot of White Christmas, which whatever else you say about it, unquestionably knows its priority is to put the contagious Berlin tunes front & center. They did the opposite on High Society, and it flopped. (But to the ear, free of the leaden production, the DRG recording is  surprisingly delightful. The film’s songs are given a polish, and some of the interpolations are quite effective. It also sneaks in some true production numbers.) There’s potential for a truly exciting realization of this show with a bit more tweaking of the song selection—and of course some talented, musical direction. Maybe someone will give it another try.

Next Up: Silk Stockings

Report Card:    High Society
Overall Film:    B-
Bway Fidelity:  B+  (for the play)
Songs from Bway:  
New Songs:      8
Standout Number: “Well, Did You Evah?”
Casting:    Starry, if not ideal
Standout Cast:  Grace Kelly, Louis Calhern
Sorethumb Cast:  Sidney Blackmer
Direction:   Yes
Choreography:    Incidental
Ballet:    None
Scenic Design:  Studio stately—somewhat dull
Costumes:  So Harper’s Bazaar
Standout Set:  The library, with wet bar
Titles:  Uninspired, utilitarian
Oscar Noms: 2; Best Song: “True Love”; Scoring

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